THE BLOG
08/07/2014 08:42 am ET | Updated Oct 07, 2014

Rediscovering Iranian Artist Bahman Mohassess in Fifi Howls from Happiness

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To most, the name Bahman Mohassess will not mean much. I know it didn't to me at first, before coming across a wonderful new documentary titled Fifi Howls from Happiness.

The film, directed by Mitra Farahani, is a very personal, insightful, intimate look at the exiled Iranian artist's last few months, living in self-imposed reclusion in a small residence hotel in Rome. An openly gay artist known as the "Persian Picasso", Mohassess left Iran in the late 1950s when the attention bestowed on his talents turned from praise and adoration to persecution and censorship. It was the era after the fall of Mossadegh and the incoming regime performed its own brand of cultural revolution, making artists the scapegoats.

As is often the case.

If my own ignorance was betrayed by my lack of awareness of this spectacular, satirical, utterly irreverent and unapologetic genius, the film thankfully caught me up on all I needed to know. Farahani gently introduces the audience to his work and character, while letting the artist think he's dictating the direction the documentary should take. But the director's intent is not to be manipulative, in any way, she's simply living a magnificent moment in time with the larger-than-life Mohassess, just before he's about to leave this world. The sky, quite literally, is the limit.

Farahani is ever present, her voice heard off-camera softly prodding the artist in Farsi to reveal more and more of himself; during a meal out, at a local restaurant, her salad sits untouched in front of the camera, her work to capture everything about Mohassess for posterity clearly overtaking those more mundane needs, like eating. She's teased by Mohassess, asked for cigarettes, bargained with and throughout the film, her grace shines the light on one of the great minds of the 20th Century.

The true brilliance of a documentary filmmaker lies in the editing, the way the narrative is put together to create a story worth watching, one that entertains and enlightens at the same time. As you can tell, I wish to laugh and cry, not just watch a doc to be instructed. And Farahani achieves that so seamlessly, perfectly, dancing a sultry tango with her subject. Yet she never oversteps her boundaries, she's always the student, Mohassess ever the Maestro. She intersperses her video diary with clips from the artist's favorite film, Luchino Visconti's classic Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), and statements by other artists like a favorite quote from Marino Marini: "We built, we destroyed and a sad song weighed on the world."

Then, in a stroke of genius Farahani builds on a parallel story drawn from Honoré de Balzac's The Unknown Masterpiece -- complete with two Iranian brothers who come from Dubai to commission work from Mohassess, and a finale to end all finales.

Fifi Howls from Happiness turned out to be one of my favorite films of the year because, without gimmicks and without trying too hard, it left me in tears; humanly, simply and beautifully emotional, just the way I wish to walk out of a cinema.

2014-08-07-filmsfifi_howlsDirector_of_Fifi_Howls_from_Happiness.jpg I caught up via email with Farahani and I'll admit, I wish we had been able to manage a face to face. Her wisdom and wit, along with her deep relationship with Mohassess, needed more of a lengthy conversation, some back and forth, than a quick Q & A. But until then, this will have to do.

Was there a favorite moment that you had to do away with, which ended up on the cutting room floor?

Mitra Farahani: Probably my greatest regret in the editing was to put aside a quote by Mohassess himself saying : "My creatures exist in a theatre stage. If you look closely, this Minotaur here is currently dying right before the spectator's eyes!"

How did you come up with the idea to incorporate Balzac's The Unknown Masterpiece into the story?

Mitra Farahani: The idea of The Unknown Masterpiece came with distance, far after I had shot the images, after all that happened since Mohassess left for good. Interestingly, Mohassess worked mainly on commission, since a very long time. An attitude that would echo the Renaissance era which he respected so much. With the Haerizadeh brothers who came along in Rome to see Mohassess, I knew something unusual could be captured. Idealism, destruction, and the student and master relationship, all in one story, I could grasp it. But then real death that broke in, fictionalizing the real somehow, that is to say the real wrote its own independent story.

My favorite quote by Mohassess is "a human rights prisoner inside a democratic dictatorship." What are some of yours?

Mitra Farahani: "Men are not equal, women and men are not equal either (only in front of Justice)." But there are so many aphorisms that are not in the film, "In this 'bagatelle' of human rights, there are those who have solely the Right to Die," and "Making art is not masturbation, it's intercourse..."

Fifi Howls from Happiness opens at Lincoln Plaza in NYC on August 8 and at Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles on August 15.

Images courtesy of Music Box Films, used with permission